Cultural Fabric

  • For Muslim immigrants in the U.S., the days following 9/11 were a harrowing encounter with American hate. iPod-bearing, second-generation techies faced insults in Silicon Valley parking lots; schoolgirls in headscarves were attacked; mosques across the country were vandalized. For many months, it seemed unclear whether America's Muslims — from the cocktail-swilling secular to the mosque-attending pious — would ever live again without apprehension.

    That period, Harvard academic Leila Ahmed argues in a new book, turns out to have been a very good thing. Its long-term effect has been to remake American Islam, making the country's most conservative Muslims tolerant of criticism and open to a young generation's more liberal demands. The result, Ahmed writes in A Quiet Revolution , is no less than a new moment "in the history of Islam as well as of America."

    She arrives at this conclusion by way of tracing the history of the veil. The bareheaded women of Ahmed's Cairo girlhood considered veiling an outmoded habit of a repressive past, but by the early 1990s many Muslim women around the world were again covering up, and Ahmed sets out to understand why.

    The story behind the veil's resurgence is not straightforward: everything plays a role, from British colonialism and the rise of Islamism to Egypt's sclerotic economy, Arab enmity with Israel and Saudi money. What Ahmed wants us to understand is that the veil has gone through the wash cycle of history and that its meaning today is both fresh and local. It is no longer a bandanna version of the all-enveloping burqa, signaling a woman's brainwashed submissiveness. Today, Ahmed argues, the veil often reflects attitudes that have little to do with piety. Many women in post-9/11 America, she notes, began wearing it to protest discrimination against Muslims.

    The portrait of post-9/11 Muslim America that Ahmed offers up bolsters her case for this new era's promise. There are the campaigns to move the women's sections of mosques out of basements, the feminist translation of the Koran and the accounts of conventions where Muslim authorities offer critics a platform to lambast their faith. Even if Muslim elders are merely putting up a facade of liberality to ward off political attack, Ahmed concludes, the climate is shaping a new generation of Muslims who demand more progressive ways.

    Many, of course, will be skeptical when it comes to Ahmed's rosy assertion that the veil's resurgence dovetails with a feminist, activist spirit. Some will question whether it even makes sense to discuss the veil so sweepingly when the climates in which women wear it — from Connecticut to Karachi — vary so dramatically. And feminists will rebuke Ahmed for trying to honey-coat a covering that to them will always symbolize Islam's patriarchy.

    Of course, the veil has a remarkable ability to provoke impassioned arguments on many issues besides gender politics, from the success or failure of multiculturalism to secularism in education. Ahmed's book will doubtlessly continue the debate. But laced into her historical account of the veil are gems of insight. Saudi Arabia's shadow looms long across the book, and the kingdom emerges as the victor in the veil's resurgence, its longtime project to export Wahhabi Islam's stricter ways a global success. Most striking of all, we learn that conservative Muslims, and veiled Muslims, make up a decided minority in America. The rest are living discreet lives — either secular or private in their practice of Islam — a silent majority receiving no one's attention.